Finding Gratitude in the World Series of Poker

In my former life as a mathematics major and actuary, I have always viewed life–and the major decisions that come with it–from a probabilistic standpoint. From a risk-minimization perspective, the How I Met Your Mother episode title “Nothing Good Happens After 2 A.M” comes to mind. E.g. one of my business-school friends asked me if I wanted to go and “hang out” outside the Staples Center during Game 7 of the 2010 NBA finals between the Lakers and the Celtics. While he was posing that question, my mind was running virtual simulations of all possible scenarios that could occur no matter which team won. Obviously–the Staples Center being in the heart of LA–many of the scenarios would have us getting caught in some kind of melee involving bottle-throwing, trash-burning, or Celtic-fan-bashing. My friend–having lived in Singapore for most of his life–could be forgiven for asking such a question. Certainly, a formal education isn’t the “be-all and end-all” and only forms a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to utility maximization and risk minimization.

Of course, living life or making decisions from a probabilistic perspective does not guarantee success, nor does it guarantee bad things from happening to you, as a recent book “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy” by Cornell Professor Robert H. Frank has attested. It is a cliche, but all we can do is give 100% of our effort, and hope for the best. Professor Frank has argued, however, that the most successful of us tends to attribute our successes to an innate ability or hard work as opposed to luck. On the other hand, the more unsuccessful among us tends to blame it on external circumstances.

This blog entry isn’t designed to be a social commentary. Rather, I want to emphasize one of Professor Frank’s many conclusions: that successful people who attribute some of their success to luck and who express gratitude for their successes tend to be happier people–and who tend to experience tangible benefits such as less aches and pains, improved sleep quality, and reduced anxiety.

Based on my experience, investors or financial traders who internalize their losses while externalizing their successes tend to demonstrate significantly better track records in the long-run. In many cases, this could mean the difference between a winning or losing track record. Successful investors or traders tend to be more cognizant of luck’s role in their successes because their results are highly tangible and could be objectively tracked on a real-time basis.

Watching the action of the 2016 World Series of Poker (WSOP), it is fascinating to see how all nine players at the Final Table expressed their gratitude for just making to the “final nine.” Several of the “final nine” are professional poker players who have never made it to the final table of the WSOP main event. Given the record amount of main event entrants–6,737 in all–this is not surprising. After all, how many of us–even those who possess both the IQ & EQ, along with the right amount of office-politicking–could make it to the CEO or COO position of a Fortune 1000 company? These players understand luck plays a larger role than skills in a tournament setting; we could certainly learn from them. After all, if finding gratitude makes one a tangibly happier person, what have we got to lose?

Finally–for those numerically-minded or just mathematically curious, here are some common probability-based trivia relating to heads-up poker (these answers were generated with computer simulations; credit goes to Michael Craig, author of “The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside The Richest Poker Game Of All Time“). The following is a direct quote from Michael Craig’s book:

In a heads-up poker match:

  1. What is the lowest high card you could have in your hand and expect to win more than half the time regardless of your second card?
  2. What is the unpaired, unsuited hand with the lowest high card that would win more than half the time?
  3. What is the lowest suited hand that would win more than half the time?
  4. What are the highest suited hands that would not win half the time?
  5. What are the worst hands that would win more than half the time?

Following are answers to the quiz:

  1. King. King-deuce off-suit won 52.6% to 53.2% of the time. Queen-high would not always win half the time. Queen-deuce off-suit, for example, won only 48.8% to 49.4% of the time.
  2. Ten-eight off-suit won 51.5% of the time.
  3. Nine-six suited.
  4. Jack-deuce suited won exactly 50% of the time. Ten-four suited won 49% to 49.4% of the time.
  5. Several hands hover around 50%. In two separate million-hand trials, the following hands were the worst poker hands that still won 50% of the time: Queen-trey off-suit, Jack-trey suited, Deuce-deuce, Jack-four suited, Queen-four off-suit.
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